KOYASAN, Japan—Just an hour-and-a-half’s train ride south of Osaka sits a hill long considered one of Japan’s most significant religious sites. It has the country’s largest burial ground and dozens of ancient temples, all comfortably tucked into a forest of towering cedars. Long a destination for pilgrims, Koyasan has been developed into a tourist destination, and many of the temples actually allow visitors to stay overnight.
Koyasan was first settled in the early ninth century by the monk Kukai, who, aside from being the spiritual leader of the Shingon school of esoteric Buddhism, was also renowned as a calligrapher, poet, engineer, political and diplomatic adviser, linguist, and scholar. It was Kukai who created the first public school in Japan. He also invented kana, syllabic scripts that are still used today. Because of the many contributions that Kukai made over a millennium ago, he is still considered by many to be the father of Japanese culture.
To foster intense religious study, Kukai decided to seek royal approval for transforming Koyasan into a devotional retreat for those who followed his branch of Buddhism. He envisioned the mountaintop haven as a physical representation of two mandalas; though the architectural development remained unfinished when Kukai passed away, construction continued through the ages, and there are now over 100 temples on Koyasan, with some being about 1,200 years old.
While the spiritual significance of Koya remains, with pilgrims in traditional garb still making their way on foot to the various temples on the mountain, the location has also developed a low-key tourism sector. Hikes on Koya always include a leg through Okunoin Cemetery, Japan’s largest burial ground. It’s a fascinating trek, with layers of the nation’s history packed into land blanketed with matcha-hued moss under a canopy of centuries-old, hulking cedars. Among 200,000 cenotaphs, you can find the markers for feudal warlords, samurai, men who entered Japanese military service during major armed conflicts, and even an emperor. Some larger, grander monuments have fallen into ruin, bringing forth questions of whether those families perished during World War II, with entire bloodlines brought to an end.
Lore fills each step. For instance, one statue “sweats,” apparently because it removes suffering from those who pray to it, offering itself as the vessel to endure the anguish of mortals. A well beside it tells visitors whether they face mortal danger—check your reflection: if you can see it, then you’re fine. Elsewhere, if you can place a heavy stone—meant to represent the weight of the bearer’s sins—on elevated wooden beams, then your heavenly ascension is assured. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of little statues of ojizosama, a divine guardian of children, are found near the headstones, cloaked in red bibs, or even adorned with knit hats to keep them “warm” in the winter. After dark, lanterns line the main paths, a round cutout on one side representing the sun, with different phases of the moon on the other. Kukai, as the monks of Koyasan say, considered the moon during meditation, as he believed that its waxing and waning is like the fickleness of humanity.
About half of the temples on Koyasan offer lodging for travelers, serving up elaborate, delectable vegetarian meals in cozy rooms. Amenities vary from temple to temple, but the environs are gorgeous no matter the season, and an overnight stay puts you in touch with the Shingon monks and priests, who welcome any visitor to observe their rituals and even join their studies.
Japan is known for incredible hospitality. It’s called omotenashi, which refers to a warmth and neighborliness that bleeds sincerity and honesty. But some visitors have been crossing the line in Koyasan by demanding services that are not offered.
The mountain’s temples were in the news over the summer, when the Shingon priest Daniel Kimura took swipes at tourists who complained online about the “basic and vegetarian” meals and lack of, say, gluten-free dining options. In one instance, Kimura fired back, “Yeah, it’s Japanese monastic cuisine you uneducated fuck.”
Uncharacteristically rough language aside, it’s easy to understand why Kimura was frustrated. There is a learning curve for visiting Japan, particularly when venturing beyond the most popular, time-tested tourist destinations.
Over 28 million tourists landed in Japan last year, nearly six times the number from 15 years ago. Many in the country are wary of the influx—the economic stimulus may bring benefits, but doesn’t make up for disruptions in daily life. Conservative media has even coined the term kanko kogai, literally “tourism pollution,” to describe outsiders overrunning restaurants, shops, public transportation, temples, and Instagrammable locations.
On Koyasan, as we approach where Kukai entered a cave over 1,000 years ago, never to emerge—his believers say that Kukai is eternally meditating—visitors are banned from taking photographs. The rule was put in place out of respect, but it also forces us to observe the milieu without fumbling with gadgets. It’s worth strolling through once during the day, and again at night, when monks from one of the temples, Ekoin, offer guided tours, where they unpack some of Kukai’s ideas and the rituals practiced by devotees at Koya, and even crack a few geeky jokes along the way. If you happen to visit in the summer, then you might even be able to see the annual rosoku matsuri on August 13, when over 100,000 candles light the way for two kilometers, helping the dead find their way to peace.
Koyasan is one of those places that is the definition of serenity. It’s a reflection of Kukai’s vision for the world. As the monks tell it, he’s still meditating in his cave. Legend says that he watches over every visitor to the mountain, and if you look back at the right time as you leave Okunoin, he might even be standing by one of the bridges, smiling at you for a warm send-off.